The Digital Library’s Best-Kept Secret

The Digital Library’s Best-Kept Secret


M.A.—$20,000 dollars of student debt, 14 months, one thesis, two internships, $1,500 dollars worth of textbooks, and countless sleepless nights later and I finally earned those two little letters following my name.

It wasn’t until three semesters into my degree, after spending $1,000 dollars merely renting my textbooks that I discovered my University’s ebook library. To be clear, I didn’t just stumble upon it either. After learning about open educational resources (OER) at the HEeD Think Tank last spring (now UPCEA’s eDesign Collaborative), I spent hours doing my own personal research on my university’s open access policy and scouring the library website. Eventually, I was able to find all but three of my 11 textbooks for my master’s degree in educational technology freely available on the library website, not to mention plenty of other materials (e.g., case studies and articles I had purchased over the years).

There is clearly a disconnect here. How come none of my professors told me about this heavenly resource? Why aren’t more of my classmates taking advantage of these resources? Why is this blessing of a resource center the university’s best-kept secret? The only plausible reason I could come up with is plain and simple: lack of awareness.

This is not just a call for open textbooks, but for awareness of all library resources, and reimagining the role that the library will play in the 21st century university.

The Double-Dipping Problem

This is not a new problem, nor a specific issue pertaining to my university. In 2013, Inside Higher Ed wrote an article about double-spending at universities. The article reported that students of universities such as Stanford are spending over $100,000 collectively each semester on course materials that are already freely available to them on the thousands of library databases they don’t know they have access to.

Overcoming the double-dipping problem requires some additional communication between university departments. For instance, Cornell University saved $34,000 in one semester by teaming up the library and the bookstore to review licensing agreements. The collaboration allowed the bookstore access to the library’s online catalog to see which materials in faculty’s course packs were readily available in library journals. A study at the University of Minnesota, found students were more likely to pay for resources available at the library if the professor went first to the permission center instead of the library to select the textbook for the class. The university has since issued a policy recommending faculty review library resources prior to immediately proceeding to the copyright permission center.

In addition to better collaboration and communication throughout the university, there are a number of edtech companies out there that synthesize the process for you. Platforms such as SIPX, AcademicPub and Intellus Learning weed through and organize all of your institution’s digital access rights, making it simple for faculty to see what is freely available to students.

What I find truly innovative about these platforms is their ability to bring together all of your library’s content, in addition to the OERs, to not only save money, but help faculty become more creative with their course design. The platform’s algorithm is able to match the relevant available content to an individual faculty’s particular learning objectives by a simple upload of the course syllabus. Instead of following one textbook throughout the entire course, they can recommend different resources that are freely available to match each particular learning objective, providing a variety and more up-to-date learning experiences.

Open Textbooks

According to Babson’s recent report on OER adoption, awareness of OER is slowly but surely gaining traction at universities and colleges across the country. With 25 percent of faculty reportedly knowing about OER, awareness is up nearly 5 percent from the previous year and another steady increase from the year before that. OER awareness (or lack thereof) stems from misunderstanding of how OERs work, and the complete ignorance of its very existence.

Perhaps awareness is a buzzword, what we really need to do is educate. Educate our librarians, faculty members and students about textbook alternatives such as open. In a conversation I had last week with David Ernst of the Open Textbook Network, he said he’s found a two-step process works best for faculty adoption:

  1. Educate: What is OER? This is not a simple question to answer; it requires a paradigm shift that many institutions resist. I’m realizing with university folks it takes more than publishing a research guide, or sending them article links. Many universities are looking to incentivization models that reward faculty members for learning about OER and encouraging them to explore.
  2. Engage: As an instructional designer, I see the next step as a form of active learning. Engage faculty members in the learning process of “what is OER?” by getting them to actively review a textbook, or adding their own content to someone else’s.

University’s Role

I see my role as an instructional designer as a unique one. At the crux of academic innovation, library services and faculty relationships, we instructional designers are in a remarkable position to reimagine higher education as not only more affordable, but a place where creativity and innovation are taking place on all levels.

As the "typical" higher-ed student is drastically changing, so should our higher-education models. The university library is not an antiquated vessel of reference books, but a hub of innovators striving to make resources available to all of today’s diverse college students. By pooling together the resources and knowledge of librarians and instructional designers, we can make more informed decisions on the forefront of education and technology affecting students and faculty.

The cost of textbooks at universities is a student issue, a faculty issue, a librarian issue and an administration issue. Students will save money; faculty will teach a more unified class, granting all students access to educational materials; and administration can see increased revenue by decreasing the student dropout rate, and receiving additional performance-based funding from the state.

Tara Lifland (@taralif) is is an instructional designer for the George Washington University’s eDesign Shop.

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